Norway’s Fjords: Up Close and Magnificent

There is something distinct about boarding a cruise ship. An airplane, after all, no matter how big, is essentially a long, metal tube that flies. You can dress it up for international flights, but when all is said and done, you are simply spending a few hours in the air in a seat, where you may be served half-way decent food (or not). You can talk to a few people around you, you can watch a movie on a small screen in front of you, but your options are limited.

My wife, Jean, and friend Carolyn Torma relax in the lounge on the MS Nordnorge.

Boarding a cruise ship is more like joining a small, floating city. Once aboard, you can wander the decks for fresh air, you can chat with hundreds of people, converse with crew members, and take in sights both near and far away. You can break out that camera you just bought. And you can visit coastal cities for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the itinerary.

Welcome to my final blog post on our trip to Norway in July 2017. I have promised and teased, but I am delivering after three prior installments about our flight to Norway; our time in Oslo; and most recently, our train trip to Bergen and our visit to its intriguing and highly edfying art museums.

When the day visit of our gang of five to the center of Bergen ended, we gathered our bags at the Clarion Hotel Admiral and boarded a shuttle bus to the dock where we checked our bags with Hurtigruten, a wonderful cruise line dedicated to sustainable practices, watched an instructional video on cruise safety, and boarded the ship. Perhaps I am a bit romantic but crossing the gangplank into a ship stirs more ancient memories of human experience than flying ever will. Humans have been sailing for thousands of years, traversing seas and oceans, and the only serious difference is that the ships have grown larger and more mechanized and, these days, electronic as well. But you are still floating close to the water and the weather and nature.

You also know that you will be aboard this behemoth for several days. That makes accommodations important. In our case, in order to join the same cruise as our friends, my wife and I had to lose our inner cheapskate and splurge on a state room because the lower decks were sold out. Our friends were on Deck 3, but we were on Deck 6, in a room that had a nice television screen and a bed for two, plus a decent bathroom. Admittedly, things still seemed a little cramped, but how much time do you want to spend in your room? Especially as the ship moves north and the summer nights grow long above the Arctic Circle, the idea of sitting in a room seems almost absurd.

Wander the decks! There is a whole world of Norwegian fjords to see out there. There was a promenade on Deck 5, one level below us, and the stairs with their gold-colored railings seemed like a grand way to get there, far more inviting than the elevator. There was the entire lounge on Deck 7, with an outdoor viewing area at the front of the ship, where you could sit outside and monitor the ship’s progress through passages that offered stunning scenery on every side. More than once, I sat there in a deck chair with the movie function turned on for a new Sony camera I had bought in anticipation of this trip. At lower latitudes near the beginning of the trip, this was often great fun. Later, as temperatures grew cooler farther north, it sometimes became less comfortable—but no less impressive.

Inside, we soon also discovered an entire world of Scandinavian cuisine that was previously not part of our daily experience. It’s not that my wife and I have not tried a wide range of international food. We simply had not visited Norway, nor spent nearly a week investigating buffet options for breakfast and lunch in the remarkable dining room on Deck 4, which offered a range of Norwegian pastries, dark breads with savory cheeses, herring, salmon, ham and beef, and all manner of vegetable dishes and soups. Dinner was served at assigned tables and times but allowed us to get to know an interesting and intellectually curious family of educators from Seattle. The food was one of the bigger surprises for me because I had not previously learned to regard Norwegian cuisine highly. Never mind all the stories you may have heard about lutefisk. After this trip, I stand corrected. The best of Norwegian cuisine is a salivating safari for sophisticated palates.

View out the front window of the lounge.

Amidst it all, relaxing in the lounge with a view of the shore in the distance or nearby, I plowed through my tome. On a long vacation, I like to take a long book I have wanted to read but never found the spare time to immerse myself in. For this trip, I tackled Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magisterial Team of Rivals, a 750-page exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s political genius in managing a team of strong wills and egos through the shoals of the Civil War. It filled the hours when I wanted to take a break from sightseeing and just enter another world and time. I chose well.

Viewing the Fjords

It is difficult to do justice to the scenery in words alone, but the beauty of the blog is that I can insert photographs to enrich the story. I had a small, aging Fuji digital camera; my iPhone; and a newly acquired Sony digital with zoom lens enhancements and movie features, all of which I was still trying to master on the fly. It often offered more options than I intelligently knew how to manipulate or had time to learn, as breath-taking scenery was often just around the next bend in the fjord.

There is nothing subtle about the Norwegian coast, but there is much that is sublime. It is not hard to imagine the awe of nature and the gods that must have filled the hearts of Vikings sailing along the coast or returning from their overseas explorations. Islands dot the sea lanes; some are inhabited, and many are not, usually because the terrain does not offer much solace. Shoreline communities occupy modest niches of flat land below hills and towering cliffs.

No two fjords are ever the same. Each has its own unique topography, its own paths to sheltered ports, its own dramatic waterfalls crashing off mountainsides into the seas, its own snow-capped peaks above the humble human intrusions below. Norwegians at times are remarkable engineers, but there must still be a sense of our own puniness in the face of such lofty natural beauty. We could never replicate the work of millions of years of geological transformations of earth’s landscape. It is better to sit back, gaze in admiration, and appreciate it.

What is remarkable, nonetheless, is the mastery of coastal navigation, even if modern ships benefit from a range of electronic wizardry to avoid danger. In a part of the coast known as the Trollfjord in the Lofoten Islands, it is my recollection that we were told we were crossing a passage with only 450 meters between rocky outcrops hundreds of meters high. On a cruise ship housing nearly 500 passengers and crew members, that does not leave much room for error, but the passage, admittedly in calm seas, seemed effortless and very precise. Our ship approached the passage in the evening; I was captivated by the scenery for the entire time and filmed it for 12 minutes. I cannot recall anything I have seen that compares.

Passing through the Trollfjord.


Ports of call are a routine feature of cruises. In Norway, these are port cities along the coast, often away from the ocean itself within fjords, the long arms of the sea that often shelter such cities. On our second full day of the cruise, the MS Nordnorge docked in Trondheim for a 3 ½ hour visit. We disembarked and began a journey on foot to find Nidaros Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in Norway and the northernmost cathedral of its size in Europe. Trondheim was also at one time the capital; moving the capital south to Oslo, formerly known as Christiania, was a modern innovation. Nidaros Cathedral remains the scene of coronations for the nation’s constitutional monarchy.

The walk to Nidaros, which was under a half-hour, took us along the Nidelva River, lined by some colorful apartments on the far side, with some interesting urban architecture on our side as we moved into the heart of the city. The site of the cathedral became apparent as we drew near because the building is surrounded by impressive grounds and fencing. The soaring worship space was completed in 1300 but begun around 1070, with much of the construction occurring after 1190. Tours require tickets at a modest price, which visitors can obtain in the nearby gift shop, whose sales help support maintenance of this massive space. The cathedral sits above the grave of St. Olav, the nation’s patron saint, a tenth-century Viking king who converted his subjects—and himself—to Christianity after learning about the faith in England, which experienced numerous Norse raids in the Middle Ages. One must marvel at its height and size given the lack of modern tools, but a tour guide informed us that masons were in the habit of leaving their initials on the bricks that formed the foundation and walls. The building has both the sense of inner darkness typical of buildings lacking modern Illumination and a sense of spaciousness emanating from its massive ceilings and the size of its sanctuary. Originally, it was the seat of the archdiocese, but suffered a demotion to a huge parish church for Trondheim following Norway’s turn toward the Reformation, when Lutheranism became the state church.

Between its history and majestic architecture, my own judgment would be that, if one had time to visit only one thing in Trondheim, this would necessarily be the default choice. That said, we had a little time left after our tour. Jean and I, in touch with our friends by cell phone, wandered through a large, modern urban mall back toward the ship but stopped for a few minutes at a serendipitous discovery, a flowery pocket park inhabited by birds, where we simply imbibed the relaxing atmosphere in the middle of Norway’s third-largest city. Then we bought a couple of souvenirs at a shop atop the bridge we crossed as we made our way back to rejoin the cruise late in the afternoon. We still had a couple of hours to relax with our friends over drinks in the bar before dinner and another evening of scenery consumption.


The next day, our long stop was at Bodø, a smaller city whose second syllable is pronounced somewhat like the “oo” sound in the English word “foot.” (Pronouncing that will give English speakers a vague sense of that distinctive sound of Scandinavian languages.) A slightly longer stay in a smaller city gave us ample opportunity to explore, but without the obvious choice of anything like Nidaros. One intriguing aspect of the day was passing beneath a tall bridge lined with spectators observing the passing of our ship beneath. Norway has plenty of bridges, no surprise, but this sort of welcome was a pleasant surprise.

In Bodø, one indicator of the changing cosmopolitan nature of Norwegian cities was the sign that greeted us not long after we became urban pedestrians again—Istanbul Kebab. Like other European nations, Norway has acquired its share of Middle Eastern immigrants, and restaurant options have diversified. No doubt, these newer options have also thrived as Norwegians seek a change of pace, just as Americans, Brits, and others have done. Still, even the shopping district near the shore affords an unhurried, uncrowded atmosphere that let us soak up the afternoon sun in peace and quiet.


Tromso Cathedral

Our fourth full day took us ever farther north with a four-hour stop at Tromsø. This is the last major city on the journey north, and not hard to wander. With my interest piqued by Nidaros, I sought out the Tromsø Cathedral, just a few blocks from the shore, only to find that it was closed and undergoing renovations—signs of which abounded with construction equipment parked just outside on the somewhat spacious Kirkeparken that surrounds the building itself. Reduced to simply looking at the building from the street, we instead joined our friends in a visit to the nearby Tromsø Gift and Souvenir shop, which sported a stuffed bear outside that was a magnet for tourist selfies. It was a great place to look at gifts that someone back home might want, as well as those souvenir mugs and hot pads that line one’s cupboards.

Once that novelty had worn off, however, we quickly discovered the Northern Norway Art Museum, which had a wonderful display of indigenous Sami clothing and handicrafts, with some explanation of the Sami culture that produced them. Here, I should note that one of the more moving lectures aboard ship, amid other daily offerings, was a presentation by a young Sami woman who was part of the Nordnorge crew. She shared stories of the discrimination suffered by Sami people at the hands of Norwegians, including herself in school and elsewhere. Things are looking up, and the king and queen offered an apology to the Sami on behalf of the nation, but racial and ethnic prejudice takes many forms and is not easily or quickly rooted out from any society.

The Sami number perhaps a modest 50,000 in modern Norway, a number larger than in any other Scandinavian nation or in Russia, where a small number also live. One of their traditional occupations has been herding reindeer, which are produced for their lean and nutritious meat, a result of consuming native grasses and herbs. The Sami, however, faced a serious public health crisis after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power accident in what is now Ukraine, as the released radiation dispersed westward over northern Scandinavia and contaminated the ground and the reindeer who roamed it. Many Sami, including the speaker, suffered some degree of radiation poisoning, which in her case produced red blotches across her back and shoulders. Her story offered a dramatic example of the environmental jeopardy facing indigenous populations around the world. To call it sobering is to understate the case. She indicated that, over three decades, those radiation levels have receded significantly but were not always regarded as a matter of concern by the Norwegian government. The Sami relied on their reindeer and suffered with them. Not everything in Norway involves love and kisses, and history must be accounted for. I had to respect Hurtigruten for offering such a heart-felt, sobering presentation amid a cruise meant largely for entertainment. If people did not hear this story here, when might they ever hear it?

Jean’s birthday dinner, complete with reindeer steak entree and cloudberry dessert.

On the last night of our voyage, our gang of five enjoyed a complimentary upgrade to a private three-course meal on Jean’s birthday. One of the entrée options was reindeer steak, which Jean and I chose. It is a dark red, very lean meat, but very tasty and tender. I may never have it again, the supply in places like Chicago being almost nonexistent. But it was well worth finding out. I also recall that Jean tried a dessert involving cloudberries, a species unique to northern Norway, mostly grown above the Arctic Circle. Hurtigruten is very good at local sourcing of agricultural produce for passenger consumption. They have identified small, sustainable producers along their route from whom they can obtain these products during the numerous short stops at ports of call, a practice that also supports the many small, struggling farmers in rural Norway.


Our last full day involved a stop at Honningsvag, a small city in the North Cape area above the Arctic Circle as the shoreline bends east along the Arctic Ocean toward the Russian border. Honningsvag is at the southeastern edge of Nordkapp, translated as North Cape in English, actually a rugged island off the northern coast of Norway. By now, I was getting used to the possibility of waking up at 3 a.m. and peeking out our cabin window to see sunlight diffused across the seascape. Summer above the Arctic Circle can be disconcerting in that respect. It upsets your normal biological rhythms.

We visited the North Cape Museum, a small but key attraction in the city that sits at the water’s edge near the Hurtigruten dock.

Honningsvag destroyed by German troops in the autumn of 1944. Photo taken in the museum exhibit.

There is one extremely sobering exhibit in the museum. To understand it, one must realize that all of Norway was occupied by the German army during World War II, after the country was betrayed by its own Vidkun Quisling, whose surname has become a synonym for “traitor.” Hundreds of thousands of German troops were pinned down in Norway because of fears of an Allied counterinvasion. As the war neared its end, Adolf Hitler also feared an invasion across the northern end of Scandinavia by the Red Army moving from Russia. Russia and Norway share the Arctic Ocean coast; Sweden and Finland reach only to the southern bounds of those two countries above the Article Circle. Hitler, to prevent such an incursion, ordered a scorched-earth policy for the German army in retreat.

Honningsvag in 2017.

Several hundred soldiers had been stationed in Honningsvag. Very late in the war, they were ordered to torch the city, which they did. More than 20,000 citizens were evacuated to the mainland before that happened. When the war was over, and the residents of Honningsvag wanted to return home, a small contingent was sent to evaluate the state of their city. The museum’s photographs document the heartbreak they saw. With one notable exception, which was Kirkegata, the main Lutheran church south of the bay where the museum is located, everything in the city had been burned to the ground. My guess is that the church survived not because the Nazis spared it, but because the flames simply did not leap across the surrounding cemetery to the building. That church became the temporary home for the initial volunteers who helped rebuild until, step by step, the people of Honningsvag were able, with support from the national government, to rebuild their city and provide new, modern homes for thousands of displaced persons. It is a stunning reminder of the high cost of war and hatred but also offered insights into the heroism of the persistent and courageous Norwegian resistance, to which several museums throughout the nation have been dedicated.

Going Home

The next morning, at 9 a.m., our ship docked in Kirkenes, a small town that abuts the Russian border to the east. It was the end of our cruise, punctuated with a short bus ride to the local airport for a flight later that day to Oslo. On that flight, we had the chance to converse with a retired Norwegian airline pilot and his wife, who told us about an occasion on which the Russian government, seeking to dispose of Syrian refugees, had put them all on bicycles and sent them across the border into Kirkenes to let the Norwegian government deal with them. With a hint of sarcasm, he noted that the bicycles had to be destroyed once the refugees were taken into custody because the Russian vehicles did not meet Norwegian bicycle safety standards. I will let the reader make of this curious story what you will. I have no reason to doubt its veracity, but if true it certainly smacks of cynicism on the part of Russian officials.

Our three friends caught an earlier flight back to Bergen, where they chose to spend two more days. Jean and I stayed overnight at the Radisson Blu Airport Hotel, awoke for an early breakfast the next morning, and walked back across the pathway for a flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. There, with only a 75-minute layover to dash through the long halls of a monstrous facility, we made our way to a United flight back to Chicago. Our lives were about to return to normal.

Jim Schwab

Exploring The State of Resilience

How do states plan for resilience? On Thursday, September 22, the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) will host a webinar on state resilience plans through the Planning Information Exchange (PIE). This is the last in a two-year series led by the American Planning Association (APA), with which ASFPM has partnered, which is likely to be extended for two more years. The webinar is free as part of a

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

FEMA-sponsored project by the two organizations. I highly recommend registering for and listening to it if you have an hour for the purpose and are interested in resilience, a subject I have discussed before on this blog. Like other PIE webinars, it will also be recorded and archived on the APA website.

The subject of resilience has gained credence in recent years because it deals with the ways in which communities can prepare to rebound more quickly and efficiently from setbacks including natural disasters. The federal response to Hurricane Sandy highlighted the issue, but so have several other disasters in recent years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsequently offered nearly $ billion in the National Disaster Resilience Competition for states and certain disaster-stricken eligible communities. Winners have been chosen and are already using the money for their proposed projects.

The operative question is what characteristics a community can cultivate that will help it better respond to such crises. But it is not just about communities. Some states in recent years have decided to take the lead in fostering resilient communities and in providing expertise to assist the process. The webinar will feature speakers from Colorado and New York.

Colorado got resilience religion, in a manner of speaking, after the September 2013 floods that affected numerous Front Range communities following a mountain monsoon rainstorm that dumped more than a foot of rain on many places. I have previously, for instance, discussed the recovery of the small town of Lyons, just below the mountains, which suffered devastating flooding. Lyons was not alone, however; it was simply one of the most extreme examples of the flooding that occurred.

Emboldened in its approach to hazard mitigation, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) in early 2015 issued a request for proposals to find a consulting firm to develop statewide guidance customized to Colorado communities on the integration of hazard mitigation into community planning processes. Colorado deals with an interesting assortment of major hazard threats—floods, landslides, tornadoes, wildfires, and avalanches, to name the most significant. Often, these combine in a cascading series of disasters in which one problem leads to another. Things can get complicated. DOLA later published that guidance online on the agency’s website. Much of the guidance is ultimately derived from an APA Planning Advisory Service Report, Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning. Although that report did not emphasize the concept of resilience, it did lay out a rationale and method for such integration that is the focus of a good deal of current guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Subsequently, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper adopted the new Colorado Resiliency Framework. At the same time, he created the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office, which provides guidance on community resilience and maintains a website for that purpose.

New York has also been pursuing resilience issues at the state level, inspired by the impacts of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Community Risk and Resiliency Act, which requires the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to use science-based projections for sea level rise, consider those and storm surge in facility permitting, siting, and funding, and provide model local laws and guidance for communities in managing climate risks. The state is now also in the process of developing a New York State Flood Risk Management Standard that mirrors the federal standard promulgated by the Obama administration last year.

Parts of the nation may be gun-shy about the subject of climate change, but Colorado and New York are major parts of a bandwagon of states that have decided to confront the issue and build a more resilient future. Rhode Island in 2014 adopted the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which establishes a scientific advisory board to examine and recommend standards for the state. The new law has strong civic support and a cheering section in Resilient Rhode Island, a group supporting the new legislation.

There will be other states following the lead of these three. With Colorado on board, it is also clear that resilience is not an issue solely facing coastal states because of sea level rise. Disaster threats to communities take many forms, and climate change has consequences for inland areas as well. Wiser state legislatures will be taking a long look at how to get ahead of the problem instead of merely reacting to it.

P.S.: For those interested in learning more about disaster recovery, especially if you are in a position to act on the information, I can also suggest a Friday, September 23, two-hour Recovery Planning Webinar sponsored by APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, for which I will be one of the presenters. The division is organizing this special webinar to benefit planners and community officials in disaster-stricken areas such as Louisiana who may need to know more about how to rebuild resilient communities. If interested, please note the following:

REGISTRATION   This webinar is also open to non-members of APA but first a Non-Member APA Account must be obtained (no cost) at: All users must pre-register at:  Registrants will receive an email containing a user-specific login for the Adobe Connect webinar.

This FREE webinar will take place on Friday, September 23, 2016 from 11:00-1:00 p.m. EDT (10 am CDT; 9 am MDT; 8 am PDT).


Jim Schwab

Crossing One Thousand

When I first started this blog, one of the nagging questions in my mind was, “Is anybody reading this?” It is a natural enough question for almost anyone. For someone who has published books and reports and hundreds of articles in various periodicals, all with readerships in the thousands to tens of thousands, it is also a question of how best to invest one’s time. The nice thing about a blog, however, is that you can choose your own subject matter. At first, I was inclined to focus more on book reviews, but the pressures of time quickly pushed that notion into the background. I do it, but I do not always have time to do it, and I realized I had a good deal more to offer, given my lengthy background in urban planning.

I made a simple decision. I now jokingly describe the subject matter of this blog as “anything I damned well please.” In truth, it’s more than that. I focus on subjects where I can bring some depth of commentary. I do not wish to rant or ramble, as I feel too many people do in an age where access to the Internet is nearly universal. One ought to be able to offer a useful perspective. But the freedom to decide what that is, outside the constraints of more prescribed frameworks, is a pleasant feature of a personal blog.

I launched this blog in earnest in April 2013, despite having posted one inaugural message a year earlier. A great deal of the frequency and content since then has been a function of my own free time. Sometimes, with the demands of professional life, that has barely existed. Travel has often taken its toll and produced a sudden hiatus here and there where I simply was not heard from. I try to avoid that, but professional responsibilities can and should take priority. I hope that my readers understand; this is, after all, purely a sideline venture. Not only do I not earn a living from blogging; so far I have made no attempt to make any money at all. People presumably have noticed there is no advertising. I don’t promise that forever, but it simply is not important right now.

So what is the point of this missive? To celebrate the simple fact that the audience has clearly grown. I no longer ask whether anyone is reading this blog. It is clear there is an audience. In the last few days of July, the number of registered users for this blog passed 1,000. That is nearly quadruple the number just three months ago. Some sort of momentum kicked in that is sustaining rapid growth in readership, adding anywhere from five to 15 new users every day. I have no way of knowing precisely what is attracting various people, and some of you are scattered around the world, in Europe and Australia particularly. I shall continue to trust that the attraction is simply providing thoughtful, thought-provoking information and commentary on a variety of topics, but most notably how we plan our communities and the ways in which we protect them from natural and man-made hazards. In addition, the occasional review of good books, movies, and restaurants may add some spice to the mix. I want to make and keep this a place for people who believe in good writing on subjects that actually matter.

And thanks for being among the first 1,000 regular readers, and to those other readers, thank you for visiting as well. I know you’re out there. I’ve been tracking this growth with considerable gratitude and appreciation.


Jim Schwab

Save the Last Dog for Me

One of the glories of living in a city like Chicago is the broad range of culinary talent that exists here. While it is not illogical to assume that the most famous chefs own restaurants that can quickly empty your wallet unless you are part of the one percent, the notion that the average person cannot afford to sample the best is not always true. There is an almost incredible variety of ethnic cuisines available in different parts of Chicago, for instance, with a range of prices. A decent, reasonable Thai restaurant, Chang Mai (Sticky Rice), for example, opened just two blocks away from us on Western Avenue just this spring.

See what you can do with a former Dunkin' Donuts store? It's called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

See what you can do with a former Dunkin’ Donuts store? It’s called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

But in October we will lose one of the most iconic and original establishments Chicago has seen in a while. I first learned of Hot Doug’s, currently at the corner of Roscoe and California, from Doug Sohn’s cousin, Terry Baker, now retired from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in Washington, D.C. One of the unique things about Sohn, who has operated the restaurant for 13 years, is that he takes all the orders from customers himself. That is why he keeps the place open only five and a half hours daily, six days a week, with the afternoon lines stretching out the door and down the sidewalk almost every single day. He is devoted to the personal touch, and his customers are devoted to his restaurant, which he calls a “shrine to encased meat.” Yes, there is a whole wall inside devoted to the history of that subject.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug's. No one gets to jump ahead.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug’s. No one gets to jump ahead.

So, after learning about the place from Terry, I visited on a Saturday with my wife. We waited in the line, finally got to the front, and I informed Doug that I worked through the American Planning Association with his cousin, Terry, at FEMA. Handing him my cell phone and dialing up her number, I asked him to confirm for me that I had in fact patronized Hot Doug’s.

With an impish smile, he listened to her voice mail message—she was not in at that moment—and then dutifully reported that Jim Schwab was in front of him ordering lunch, noting that I seemed to be “a nice man; not wearing pants.” Then he handed back the phone and took our order.

Now, at Hot Doug’s, you don’t just order hot dogs. You order very specific kinds of sausages, which may be composed of elk meat, rabbit, or, if you wish, ordinary beef. Well, not so ordinary once it goes through the Hot Doug’s treatment. Various concoctions bear the names of celebrities, changing with the times, listed on the board. I believe that day there were sandwiches dedicated to Madonna and Elvis, but names and combinations change to maintain the variety to which customers are addicted. These include French fries fried in duck fat, and foie gras sausages.

That latter drew Doug a $500 fine from the city back when the city had an ordinance prohibiting foie gras from 2006 to 2008, when it was repealed. I am personally not a fan of foie gras, including for reasons related to treatment of the geese involved, but I am not convinced that a city ordinance is the best way to address the question, and numerous chefs in Chicago took exception to the ban. Considering the Chicago City Council’s perennial inability to tackle more serious subjects, like school closings, crime, or meaningful ethics standards for its own members, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the foie gras ban constituted political grandstanding more than any heartfelt commitment to the welfare of geese. Doug proudly posted his citation for all to see as an act of defiance.

But this is not a story about foie gras. It is a story about one chef, one entrepreneur, with his own unique vision, which did not include franchising his idea, who insisted on meeting and greeting each of his customers every day, and built a devoted fan base by word of mouth. It is about a restaurant that will draw tears when it closes so that Doug Sohn can undertake what he calls a “permanent vacation.” He even hinted that his new freedom may allow him to visit someone else’s restaurant for lunch, something he presumably has not done for a very long time.


Jim Schwab

Hawaii Log (Part 2)

Beyond the Friday day trip to Kaua’i, which I summarily described in Part 1 of this Hawaii log, there is not much point in detailing the work I was doing on this trip. For one thing, it is premature. We were simply working on a training course that is still in development and previewed some of it at a day-long workshop at Pacific Risk Management Ohana (PRiMO) conference at the Hawaii Convention Center. The rest will become apparent when it reaches completion and NDPTC is prepared to unveil it. In the meantime, we are figuring out what works and why. Suffice it to say our trio of consultants spent Saturday morning shaping our presentations, and I spent my Sunday morning refining mine. Meanwhile, my wife and grandson were entertaining themselves at the nearby Ala Moana Mall, Hawaii’s largest. It contains, among numerous other stores, a Barnes & Noble, where they bought Angel some books to read on the trip home. Being ten, he chose a mixture of Goosebumps and Wimpy Kid, if I recall correctly.

While I worked on Sunday morning in our room on the 29th floor, Jean and Angel went swimming. They're down there in the middle.

While I worked on Sunday morning in our room on the 29th floor, Jean and Angel went swimming. They’re down there in the middle.

For those few elitist adults who may groan and grimace at those selections, I would note that he (a) reads books and (b) enjoys them. I cannot say that my choices were any more sophisticated at that age, and I doubt many of them can, either, if they are honest. The first step in developing a reading habit is to enjoy it. I might also mention that he has been reading Tom Sawyer lately, though a version adapted to his age level. But he at least knows about Mark Twain.I can thank our colleague Gavin Smith for recommending Saturday’s lunch, once we had completed our collective work. The four of us headed to Nico’s at Pier 38, just off the Nimitz Freeway along the waterfront. Nico’s has both a sandwich operation as well as poke, or raw fish, which I admit is not my thing, so I picked up a cooked ahi tuna sandwich and provided the beers. Hawaii, like most states these days, has its own brewery, Kona, on the big island, which produces a couple of brands including Longboard. I tend to favor local microbreweries when I can, and while I have not checked on whether Kona is actually “micro,” I will say it is not a bad beer (which is Midwestern for saying it is quite good). It is smooth, not too hoppy, with a mellow taste, worth a try. I found myself trying it again throughout the trip when it was available. Nico’s has the added benefit of outdoor seating and an open air atmosphere that lets you feel that you really are enjoying your Saturday afternoon yet away from the tourist traps. Not that we avoided all the tourist traps.

In fact, that evening I effectively insisted on finding one. On a previous trip to Oahu, I had learned about Duke’s, a restaurant named after Duke Kahanamoku, who in Hawaii was an almost legendary athlete, the godfather of surfing, and an Olympic swimmer who competed for the U.S. in the 1920s with Johnny Weismuller and won gold medals in 1912 and 1920. Duke was a great ambassador for Hawaii who effectively taught modern surfing to the Australians. Duke’s is a sufficiently popular outpost along Kalakaua Blvd. in Waikiki that our party of three had to wait about an hour for seating. That gave us time to browse the gift shops in the hotel hallway that leads to the restaurant, which backs out onto the beach. It also gave me time to show Angel the nearby statue of Duke in the park just to the west, where his beveled image faces the city amid sand and palms. It was installed in 1990 on the centennial of his birth.

Next time, we have to take a better photo of Duke's statue. Twilight is not the best time.
Next time, we have to take a better photo of Duke’s statue. Twilight is not the best time.

Surfing had been a favored sport of Hawaiians long before Captain Cook stumbled into the place, followed by numerous other Europeans and Americans in the 19th century. The newcomers heavily discouraged surfing, and it waned among the natives, as did hula, also discouraged by colonizers and missionaries. Duke led the resurgence for surfing; hula has also revived, which is fortunate for world culture because it is a uniquely Hawaiian art form that is in fact a form of storytelling. And surfing has become a worldwide water sports phenomenon, a Hawaiian gift to the world.

Dinner on the beach at Duke's after dusk. (From a previous visit in 2012)

Dinner on the beach at Duke’s after dusk. (From a previous visit in 2012)

Eventually our hour approached, and we got seated. Duke’s has a very good salad bar, for starters, with a number of options, but it is the seafood that draws me back. I ordered their opah, Hawaiian moonfish, grilled in garlic and lemon butter, accompanied by asparagus and rice. I think it is remarkably delicious, soft and flaky but flavorful. The asparagus was nearly perfect, juicy but also crisp. I no longer recall what my wife and grandson ordered, but I do know that no one complained, even about our 20-minute walk back to the hotel on a beautiful night.

In the next part of this log, I will discuss our two outings on the ocean and other diversions.


Jim Schwab

Always Feed the Meter

Those who live in big cities know how unforgiving the parking meters are. Leave your car unattended longer than the time on the meter allows, forget to put that extra money in before time runs out, and here comes a parking ticket, with a hefty fine–$25, $50, or more, depending on the city and the location. In Chicago, we no longer even have the perverse satisfaction of knowing that the money at least helps fill the public coffers and pay for some potential service, perhaps covering police or firefighter wages that might do others some good. Thanks to a quick hustle and a compliant city council, Mayor Richard M. Daley in the waning days of his 22-year tenure managed to lease the parking meters for 75 years to a private company, and then spent our patrimony by filling budget gaps. The meters are now making that company rich while taxpayers are left holding the bag and, even worse, the city has forfeited the ability to use meter pricing strategies as a policy tool to influence urban development. This is the dark side of privatization: poorly considered decisions to squander public assets in the interest of short-term political gains, and sometimes feathering the nests of political allies.

But that is not the real point of this blog essay. I am really writing to say that those who were following this blog closely may have noticed a three-month hiatus since mid-November. The immediate reason for this was that I had simply hit a personal logjam where I allowed the needs of my position at the American Planning Association to chew up so much of my free time that I was unable to develop what I considered satisfactory commentaries, even though I had plenty of ideas and material to draw from. Last year, however, was a very busy year in which I completed 23 trips on APA business, plus two more to Iowa City in connection with teaching for the University of Iowa, and three more for personal reasons. Toward the end of the year, enough pressing tasks had accumulated, with enough pressing deadlines, that I decided I needed to set the blog aside long enough to see them through. This is, after all, a sideline enterprise. And deadlines are deadlines.

Then, as of December 20, which happens to be my birthday, I took a vacation. That Friday evening, my wife and I did what I had long wanted to do on my holiday season birthday. We attended the “Do-It-Yourself” Messiah, conducted by Stephen Sperber at the Harris Theater in Chicago’s Millennium Park. If you have never done this (and have no religious objections to the composition), I urge you to try it. The entire audience accompanies four professional singers and a small orchestra to perform the vast bulk of Handel’s magnificent, sometimes manic, composition over a three-hour span broken by one very welcome intermission. To the extent that people were willing, voices were separated throughout this wonderful underground theater—the altos and sopranos nearer the top, basses and tenors nearer the stage—although my wife and I stayed together in the alto section. You bring your own score, and you follow the music, and you join this magnificent ad hoc choir for the chorus parts, and then take a break during the various solos, performed by the professionals. It is an exhilarating holiday season experience. It was a great start to a holiday season, followed by a visit to relatives in Ohio, and then  . . .

I was planning to post, and had composed one essay for later editing, and was working on all this the morning of December 31 in the café at a Barnes & Noble while my wife entertained two grandsons elsewhere in the store, and was too careless in slinging my laptop bag onto my shoulder when it came time to go, and . . .

I spent New Year’s Eve in some pain with a pinched nerve on my left side, which I spent more than a month remedying with physical therapy and massage in order to get back to my fitness routine. Ironically, the day before, I had switched my fitness club membership to one I thought more convenient, closer to home, in order to turn over a new leaf for the new year. Then I found myself putting that on hold until I could recover well enough to get a medical release.

But that’s not the whole story, either. The rest of the story goes back to feeding the meter. I had gotten a notice in November that the version of WordPress on my blog would not be supported after a certain date, but that was before the hiatus, and I paid it little mind as I had more urgent business to attend to. Bluehost was going to do the update anyway. Then, by the end of December, I found that my WordPress admin site was devoid of content or any means of uploading content, and I was not sure what to do next because, frankly, I am not much of a techie. I learn what I need to know but not always a whole lot more. My niece, who studied graphic design in college, designed this website, but withdrew from the business some time ago in favor of motherhood. I went searching for a web designer in Chicago to assume those tasks. But by then, my luck had run out. I was having difficulty for a few days just sitting at a desk long enough to read my e-mail. I had little energy left for a blog by the time I finished a normal work day, and those therapy appointments ate up time as well. Then my new web designer seemed to disappear as fast as I had found him.

It turned out he had complications from surgery on a broken forearm, a plenty good reason to have gone incommunicado in the short term. But then he got back in touch, and I am happy to welcome Christopher Merrill as the professional who can keep this website and blog in good shape from now on.  And I am once again feeding the meter.

But I have yet to feed another meter. Another notice–from Quicken– that the download function on my Quicken 2011 would no longer be supported as of a date certain if I did not update to Quicken 2014, has taken on new urgency. These guys mean business. They don’t support old software forever.

Feed the meter.

I say this with a newfound humility, even as I have no apologies for understanding professional priorities, and know that I balance more of them better than many people, but not all of them perfectly all of the time. But the software barons are not shy about applying the virtual Denver Boot. I’d best take care of Quicken, but at least the blog is back in operation.

Like our public thoroughfares, the Internet is free only to a point. I have fed the meter.


Jim Schwab

Get Your Drought Planning Training Here

I recently had the honor of serving as the guest presenter in a webinar series hosted by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. The February 12 presentation highlighted a research report, Planning and Drought, which we produced at the American Planning Association under an agreement with the Center. As the presentation, and the introduction to it on APA’s Recovery News blog, pretty much speak for themselves, let me here merely link you to it if the problem of preparing communities adequately for the sort of drought recently facing California is of any interest:

Jim Schwab

High and Dry on the Waterfront

This posting is not my typical essay, but simply a link to a free download, for a limited time, of a Zoning Practice article I recently authored for the American Planning Association. “High and Dry on the Waterfront” discusses an issue covered in my October 14 blog entry, “Living Densely on the Urban Waterfront,” about the challenges of rebuilding in dense urban neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and other places hit last year by Hurricane Sandy. If you simply click on the home page panel with the article name, that will take you to the download to read the article itself, which you can download as a PDF. Enjoy.

Jim Schwab

Living Densely on the Urban Waterfront

Far too often have I heard people ask the facile question about why other people live in hazardous areas, such as along rivers that flood or coasts that suffer coastal storms. Yes, Americans do have a propensity for building in hazardous areas, and often not building appropriately for such areas, but many of the people asking the question are themselves living in areas subject to some sort of hazard. It’s just that it’s easier to spot the speck in another’s eye than the mote in one’s own, as Jesus once noted.

I teach a graduate urban planning class at the University of Iowa, called “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” To make the point that not everything is as simple as it may seem, I ask students early in the semester to name me a place with no hazards. It would have no seashore, no rivers, no steep slopes, no forests, etc., for all those features of the landscape entail some hazard. It soon becomes apparent that we have built cities in many of these places for very practical reasons—access to water and natural resources, transportation, etc. So the question is not only where we build, but how we build. Some things belong on the coast. Others do not, or at least do not need to be there. And we can no more depopulate the entire shoreline than we can Tornado Alley or earthquake-prone California. People have to be somewhere.

Moreover, we have great legacies of cities along our seashores, in part because the thirteen colonies that founded this country were, largely, along the East Coast. So today we have great cities like Boston, Baltimore, and New York, with great harbors and millions of people who enjoy their access to the ocean. It does pose problems from time to time, particularly in hurricane season, but so does life in Des Moines. I woke from a sound sleep one night in Ames, Iowa, to hear what sounded like a freight train outside the window. It turned out a tornado had swooped down a mile away, swept the roofs off seven houses, and skipped off into the darkness. Tornadoes or not, we need people in Iowa, the source of much of the nation’s beef, soybeans, corn, hogs, and, well, insurance. To help pay the bills for all those people whose homes and businesses get clobbered by natural disasters, you know.

With billions of dollars of real estate near or along the waterfront in New York City, much of it invested in tall buildings, it is perfectly clear to most sane planners that simply abandoning the waterfront is not a workable solution in such dense urban environments. Nonetheless, many of the standard prescriptions for flood mitigation from agencies like FEMA, which manages the National Flood Insurance Program, seem to assume that communities have room to clear out the floodplain and move people elsewhere. That works well when property values are relatively cheap and the buildings are low-rise. It does not work so well in remedying the flood problems in high-rise apartment buildings, yet we cannot afford to let the people who live there be marooned in the midst of storms like Hurricane Sandy.

It is thus with some relief that I learned that planners in New York, not satisfied with standard FEMA guidance, decided that the city needed to take some matters into its own hands. It is not that the city can disregard the NFIP or FEMA hazard mitigation regulations. But it can adapt them to its own needs. Over the first half of this year, the New York City Planning Department did exactly that, in the context of a city government that is already taking the challenge of climate change, with resulting long-term sea-level rise along its 520 miles of urban coast, seriously. New York cannot afford, like so many Tea Party enthusiasts in the rural South, to put its head in the sand and pretend that climate change is a scientific fantasy. Too much investment is at stake, by the tens of billions of dollars in Lower Manhattan alone. New York needs to be real about this.

The result of its efforts is displayed effectively in two documents the city released in June. Designing for Flood Risk is the shorter of the two, basically examining how good city planning and urban design principles can be employed to maintain livable, walkable, attractive urban spaces even when some buildings are floodproofing lower floors, when some homeowners are elevating them, and when adjustments need to be made for exterior stairways and ramps to accommodate residents, businesses, and the needs of the disabled. I have just written about this for the November issue of the American Planning Association’s Zoning Practice, but I recommend a look at New York’s adaptations to new flood challenges in a dense urban environment. The longer document, Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies, spends more time and illustrations on a typology of the urban coastline, discussing which solutions better fit with sheltered or natural coasts and why. It too, however, is very readable and educational and introduce readers to the realities of addressing flood and coastal storm risks in a dense urban corridor.

It has been said, very accurately, that Sandy was the most urban disaster in the nation’s recent history. It is not that such a storm has never happened before. My father, who grew up in Queens, vividly remembered the “Long Island Express,” the unnamed hurricane of 1938 that swept across Long Island and southern New England, leaving massive flooding in its wake. But over time, we forget. Sandy reminded us and also acquainted us with the growing stakes associated with climate change. Such a disaster deserves an appropriate urban remedy. New York City is actually groping for one quite effectively.

Jim Schwab

A Dose of Good Judgment

It is easy enough to be cynical about government, especially about its response in a crisis. Millions of Americans express such cynicism on a regular basis, if not daily. It takes a bit more fortitude to look honestly at some of the daunting challenges government must face in events like Hurricane Sandy and to conclude that some things actually get done well, and to conclude that leadership is sometimes successful. It takes a certain depth of judgment to conclude that some of that successful leadership can emerge from moments of governmental self-criticism, examining in some depth what works well and what does not, then drawing conclusions about what steps would solve the problems uncovered.

I have just spent the last two weeks pouring over the entire 200-page length of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, produced by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force since last winter and released on August 19. I would like to have blogged on this topic earlier, but I prefer on this site to be a bit more thorough in my reviews and not simply rush to judgment. I did use some material from the report in an August 20 presentation to the Chicago Metro Section of the American Planning Association, and have been seeking to wrap up work on the initial draft of our planned Planning Advisory Service Report on post-disaster recovery planning. But I wanted to be deliberate in reading the full report with its numerous recommendations, and I had plenty of distractions in the days following its release.

That said, on the Recovery News blog on the APA site, we did at least move to post quickly the link to the document without an extensive review. We thought it import ant to alert those readers to the document’s existence and provide easy access to a download. But here I want to comment a bit more on the underlying approach.

What impresses me most about the Rebuilding Strategy is the attempt to confront honestly the many dilemmas government faces in expediting recovery in the face of such a massive event. Although not at the level of Hurricane Katrina, the numbers are still staggering:

  • 200,000 small business closures due to damage or power outage
  • 72 direct fatalities caused by the storm, and 87 others indirectly connected to the storm
  • $1 billion in gas line repairs in New Jersey
  • Eight flooded tunnels, with average commute time doubled
  • Six hospitals closed by the storm
  • 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed

The litany of statistics could go on, but they are primarily associated with the fact that Sandy was the most urban-oriented natural disaster in a long time, perhaps ever, striking one of the most densely populated areas of the United States—New York and New Jersey. That, in turn, posed unique problems not always associated with hurricanes and floods, namely, that there was far less available land to which people in affected areas could be relocated because most of it was already highly developed. Amid all this, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending its new National Disaster Recovery Framework to the region on its maiden voyage, where it could work out all the kinks in a marvelous but still somewhat vague design for managing federal recovery assistance in a region containing one huge city, New York, with more planning and administrative resources than any other municipality in the nation, and a host of small townships and villages across Long Island and the New Jersey coast, many of which have only the most limited governmental capacity and require significant help from the state and federal government to begin to sort things out. This is not a recovery management challenge for the faint of heart.

The task force was the creation of President Obama, who appointed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan as its chair, with a long list of other federal agencies involved. Part of its task was not only to oversee the entire redevelopment process among the many agencies involved, notably including FEMA, but to develop from the experience recommendations for improvements in future federal efforts of this type. That is the focus of my essay here because that is the focus of the report.

There are numerous recommendations, but I find very few with which I would take serious issue. The task force seems, in my view, to have undertaken a very common sense assessment of the most significant issues connected with recovery, and made sober, sensible recommendations in the vast majority of cases. The first group, which may cause heartburn among climate change deniers but undeniably looks to the future with a keen eye, concerns the need to incorporate sea level rise into future risk assessments. This is a necessity, and the report calls for the development and use of appropriate tools to make such assessments, including NOAA’s rollout earlier this year of a new sea level rise tool. It seems foolhardy to continue to build along vulnerable coastlines in ways that fail to anticipate higher storm surge associated with such climate change impacts. Fiscal conservatism would seem to suggest a more cautious approach, even in the face of the never-ending desire to build on the beach. Yes, I know, such development can be immediately lucrative for some local tax coffers and the associated developers, but there must at some point be some public interest asserted for not imposing upon taxpayers the obligation to bail out such development when the next superstorm threatens. It is important that we rebuild our coastal communities in a more resilient fashion. The report includes, as a matter of fact, some additional recommendations for establishing national infrastructure resilience guidelines. The Sandy supplemental expenditure authorized by Congress totaled more than $60 billion. It is important that we spend such vast sums of money wisely when we rebuild.

It is not possible here to detail all the recommendations made. It is the intent to facilitate connecting readers to the report itself for such detail. But I do want to state that the report covers far more than I have just suggested, including measures for effective and timely data sharing between the states and federal agencies, opportunities for enhancing green infrastructure as part of the recovery, green building standards, and a host of good management suggestions for rebuilding affordable housing and assisting in small business recovery, among other subjects treated at some length. It is not necessary for everyone to read the report in the same depth that I did, but I suggest at least glancing through it to get some knowledgeable impression of its breadth and depth and logic. There are a few things here and there that puzzle me, including a definition of hazard mitigation that seems considerably more limited than the one in use by FEMA. I have asked for an explanation of that but not heard back yet. But by and large, I do think it demonstrates that such a task force can take an honest measure of such a large crisis and actually produce ideas that fit the challenge and may very well move the nation forward in its ability to handle such crises in the future. That is no small achievement.


Jim Schwab